Paperback : 01 Sep 2011
Read an extract from: Dust
After she was buried, Jessie awoke and tore through the earth to arise, reborn, as a zombie. Jessie's gang is the Fly-by-Nights. She loves the ancient, skeletal Florian and his memories of time gone by. She's in love with Joe, a maggot-infested corpse. They fight, hunt, dance together as one-something humans can never understand. There are dark places humans have learned to avoid, lest they run into the zombie gangs.
But now, Jessie and the Fly-by-Nights have seen new creatures in the woods-things not human and not zombie. A strange new illness has flamed up out of nowhere, causing the undeads to become more alive and the living to exist on the brink of death. As bits and pieces of the truth fall around Jessie, like the flesh off her bones, she'll have to choose between looking away or staring down the madness-and hanging onto everything she has come to know as life . . .
1. What was your inspiration for Dust?
One October weekend I was watching old movies on late night television, having that weekend nothing better to do. The original Night of the Living Dead, which I'd never before seen, came on and to my great surprise I was enthralled, (I still haven't seen any of George Romero's other movies, other than a remake of Dawn of the Dead which I disliked). I was also quite upset, but also impressed with the final, ironic fate of one of the lead characters – if you've seen it you can probably guess which one I mean¬ – and there were also so many unexamined subtexts in that cheap little movie: racial animosity, class conflict, the unexamined savagery of "law and order" humans and the complete failure of larger institutions in crisis. A few nights later that same station showed the original Carnival of Souls and its sheer existential eeriness won me over completely. I hadn't ever given zombies much thought before that, but those two movies got me pondering the whole question of why and how we fantasize about death. My other inspiration was that I'm rather a morbid person who's nonetheless very frightened at the thought of dying – all headaches are brain tumours until proven otherwise – and there's no better way of addressing your deepest concerns, at least if you're me, than making up a fantastical story about them.
2. Why did you decide to write in the zombie genre?
I started Dust sometime in 2002 or 2003, years before the current upsurge of interest in zombies, and it was difficult if not impossible to find any media treating them as anything but perambulating pieces of rotten meat. Thanks to all the reasons above I got excited about the idea of trying to give this monster a certain humanity, while still respecting its monstrosity – the zombies in Dust not only don't want to be human again, but they find "hoos," humans, and their "hoodoo" just as revolting as humans find them – and so I was off to the races.
3. The zombies in Dust are almost humanlike, particularly in their emotions and in their relationships with each other. Why did you decide to portray them like this?
It was simply more interesting than writing them as the usual brainless shufflers who only warrant a cricket bat to the skull, (I've received the occasional angry e-mail, since writing this book, from traditionalist zombie lovers who want their perambulating rotten meat back, but that's their lookout). It struck me that there was a lot of untapped potential in the fact that this particular monster is both all our fears of death made flesh – no sexy, usually money-dripping eternal youth, like with vampires – and also our dearest departed, the people we'd otherwise grieve and mourn, come back in a form that literally makes us wretch. What would it be like to retain a consciousness of your own death, your own decaying body, to still be on the same earth as your former family and friends but separated from them forever, because while they're the same people you always loved they'll never see you as yourself ever again? I ended up feeling terribly sorry for the undead and somewhat indignant on their behalf, and that felt like far more promising territory than, "Land sakes, Irma, grab my rifle and gas up the pickup, those smelly dead things are chasing us again."
4. Where did you get the idea of writing about a pandemic illness that makes zombies regenerate and the living become zombie-like?
Pandemic illnesses are one of the hoariest of old chestnuts in the zombie genre - there's always that scene where the hero's best friend or mother or whoever reveals they've been bitten and infected, and must be shot for their own sake – so it amused me to reverse the convention and have zombies horrified to discover they're mutating back into a sort of species of human, (as rising from the dead, in this universe, is something that's been happening for centuries or millennia and entirely by chance, the usual sort of pandemic wouldn't have worked anyway). Also, rather than closely focusing on what the illness does to break down human society – humans and their concerns really aren't the point of this book – I wanted to examine what it would all look like from the sidelines, the margins, as experienced by this marginalized population. There's an old Ray Bradbury short story, set in a tiny Mexican village in the middle of nowhere, where a group of American college students come driving through in a blind panic about the impending nuclear war and the end of the world, and once they've departed the gas station attendant thinks it over and then wonders aloud, "What do they mean, 'the world'?" The zombies, in this book, are all that man.
5. Why did you decide to set your book in Calumet region of Indiana? Is this a place of significance for you?
The Calumet region – for those unfamiliar with it, the far northwest corner of Indiana, bordering the southernmost neighbourhoods of Chicago – is where I've lived most of my life and I have a strong belief that writers should bring as deep a cultural and geographical understanding to their books as they can manage; Oz might be more colourful but Kansas needs its adherents, too. The Region (as it's always referred to locally) is also a great patchwork of different elements in close proximity: urban areas and farms, steel mills and oil refineries within sight of untouched Indiana Dunes beach land, dire poverty and million-dollar beach houses, mosques and Christian "mega churches," racial and ethnic diversity and division, and – thanks to post-industrial reality – a lot of shuttered and abandoned buildings and neighbourhoods in which you could easily imagine not quite human squatters. Gary, Indiana in particular has been breathlessly written up as a "dying" city for about as long as I've been alive - and I'm not young - so making it a focal point for a book about the undead had a certain logic to recommend it.
6. Dust is particularly gory in parts - did you enjoy writing these bits?
I'd be lying if I said it weren't a bit thrilling – which is strange, since as a reader I can be extremely squeamish – but then there was really no point in letting all that research into the biology of bodily decay and infestation go to waste, (Kenneth V. Iserson's exhaustive Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? was an invaluable resource, along with Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death). It probably helps that zombies themselves don't see decay as disgusting or nauseating at all, merely a natural "aging" process, and I was writing exclusively from their point of view. The most difficult part wasn't the gore itself, but the fight choreography: there are at least three major physical altercations that are also significant turning points in the novel, and the largest one took me over a month to work out. It's amazing how quickly you can lose track of your own characters' limbs when you're not paying proper attention.
7. Frail is the follow-up to Dust- can you tell us what we can expect?
Frail takes place several months after the events of Dust. We see the all-important human perspective on post-pandemic reality – Amy, our protagonist, is human, or at least she believes herself to be – several other new characters and some holdovers from
Dust, some of whom are adapting to the new reality and some of whom aren't managing to at all. Frail further complicates the question of what it really means to be "alive" and "human" and considers how to keep going forward in a world that simply isn't yours anymore, as well as what happens when your own terrible acts quite literally pursue you to the ends of the earth.
8. How long have you been writing creatively?
Until I started Dust I had no novel-writing experience whatsoever and found the idea of even attempting one thoroughly intimidating, but I knew I wanted to do it. I stumbled over an online interview with the science fiction writer James Van Pelt, who advised that even if you couldn't get more than 200 words written in a day that doing so consistently meant a story or novel emerging from the other end, and I thought, "Well, that I think I could do." I set myself a 300-word daily quota, which slowly increased as my own skill and confidence increased, and after about six years I had an 800-page work of pure lunacy that degenerated into complete chaos by the end. I threw out two-thirds of it, radically altered the plot, ended up with a slightly less lunatic 350-page final draft, rewrote two-thirds of it again at my agent's behest (all her criticisms of it were wholly justified), and here we are. Frail was the far less chaotic work of two years rather than nine, so it's possible I actually did learn something by the whole process after all.
9. I understand that you work in the legal profession as well as being a writer. How do you manage your time to write novels as well as hold down a career?
Since I'm not a litigator and don't do a great deal of courtroom work I'm fortunate enough to have more regular hours than many attorneys, and so I do most of my writing early in the morning before going into the office. As I am the farthest thing from a morning person under the best of circumstances some of my dawn writing sessions take on the quality of a fever dream, which some readers might imagine explains a few things.
10. Are you working on any other books at the moment?
To my great surprise I am about 85,000 words into the third and final book in this series (the tentative working title is Grave, though its real name is still Book Three), which brings together themes and characters from both Dust and Frail for their long goodbye. Following that I have in mind a work of realist fiction, or at least relatively realist, inspired by the plot of a well-known opera, so after this the dead will be staying dead and I will have wandered off the zombie reservation for good.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 384
Published : 01 Sep 2011
Publisher : Penguin
Other formats for Dust:
» ePub eBook: eBook : £4.00
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